PRINT June 1962

Jack Zajac

LIKE MOST OF HIS CONTEMPORARIES Jack Zajac is basically a Romantic artist. But his dynamic self-expression and his memorable comment—in painting and sculpture—on timeless and universal themes reveal a penetrating intellect and profound emotions.

At 33 Zajac belongs to those young American artists who have retained and reinvented the image out of an inner need rather than out of a kind of reaction to the predominant abstract idiom of our day. Their pride in the traditions of their art is coupled with a true humility that forces them to approach the art of image making anew.

It is in Zajac’s power to bring to poses sanctified by centuries, and to ideas postulated through the ages, a fresh conviction and an exciting approach that is strictly his own, and, therefore, decidedly of his time. To encounter a truly prodigious young talent is a rare and pleasurable experience for any critic. To see it grow and mature steadily is rewardingly exhilarating.

From my first encounter with Zajac’s paintings at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art ten years ago and my initial discovery of his turning to sculpture in the Rome studio of the Neo-Romantic painter Eugene Berman six years later, I have never doubted that I was confronted with the developing work of an artist of true genius—an estimate now widely shared by critics, curators and collectors both here and abroad.

This apparent genius for dealing with the plastic media of paint and sculpture, is linked with an enormous capacity for work and study on the part of this young artist. As a visiting student at Scripps College, the tall, forceful ex-steel mill hand immediately attracted attention not because of the incongruity of his academic situation but because of his evident gift. Before coming to Claremont, where he was later to teach at Pomona College, Zajac had worked his way through school in such various roles as fisherman, bingo parlor caller and cafe fiddler.

Millard Sheets, Ala Story and Peter Selz were among the early champions of this extraordinary talent. By 1951 Zajac had his first one-man show at the Pasadena Art Museum, followed by solo exhibitions in Santa Barbara and at the Felix Landau Gallery in Los Angeles. This gallery has been instrumental in bringing world renown to this California artist.

Early canvases, which brought him awards and sales, often dealt with birds in flight and with the sea. Even then he strove for a personal idiom that would balance abstract and literal elements.

During his first three year stay in Europe as a Prix de Rome winner, Zajac developed an interest in sculpture which continues to overshadow his considerable efforts as a painter and printmaker. But as his recent and successful exhibition of canvases at the Landau Gallery demonstrates, he has no intention of limiting himself to sculpture.

“I still want to paint,” he says. “But sculpture often seems the thing because I do not have all that larcenous technical knowledge and am forced to make my images the hard way. My concern with the image in a time of almost exclusive nonobjective art can be explained the same way. I see the technical and ‘painterly’ achievements of so much of current painting as an obstruction to more profound literal statements—or a denial of literal possibilities entirely. We know that is not true. That is why I went to a new medium where I had to make the idea (after) I had it. I want to paint with the same innocence one of these days.”

Our sense of foreboding brought about by the ever-growing possibility of apocalyptic doom of life on earth has nowhere been more saliently expressed than in Zajac’s sculpture of sacrificial goats which first brought him international notice.

The artist writes: “In the goats the concept of the stake is my own. The hard object threatening the soft belly of the animal, which seems particularly vulnerable in a goat, is my way of trying to provoke a feeling of urgency and alarm. The very point of this conception is that these animal forms are not impaled—that death is still imminent. If they were dead, the drama would be over.”

Thus these sculptures of sacrificial animals are separated by intent from the ritualistic religious meaning similar expressions have had in other times and even in the hands of other modern artists. The Zajac series stands as a symbol for a more general and far-reaching idea though vestiges of the solemnity and initial visual shock found in earlier, related conceptions are retained. In a similar way, the traditional image of the winged man is transformed by Zajac into a definite symbol of death and transfiguration. His most recent sculptural works such as the notable Metamorphosis series and the ribbon forms of his fountain figures are the most ebullient of Zajac’s creations. Perhaps the sunny gaiety of Italy (where he spends half of his time now) has somewhat mitigated the artist’s inherited Slavic gloom.

Like most of his recent sculptures, his latest paintings deal with the death and resurrection theme in a manner which brilliantly combines tradition and experimentation. Zajac uses the visual metaphor of death to point exuberantly to the miracle of life in which the mortality of man is merely a poignant incident.

Religious iconography is adopted by Zajac because he feels that “it possesses in it all the dramatic needs of the artist—since the complete cycle of man’s experience is symbolized by its mythology.”

To protect an emotional factor greater than nature, powerful artists have always focused on the significant gesture. The stance of the striding Apollo of ancient Greece is heroism epitomized; the head thrown back by Michelangelo’s Slave is the physical manifestation of poignant submission; the limp, recently-dead figures in Zajac’s painting are tenderly kept—revered and respected for their past and total meaning. Along with these departures Zajac pictures for us the ever recurring arrival of the blooms on trees—an exuberant symbol of hope and rebirth that consoles us in the face of human mortality.

The excitement which the closeness of referential and abstract elements create in Zajac’s paintings is a foremost factor in their success. Add to this the strong tactile stimulation found in these canvases through their shallow space, their subdued, yet glowing palette and their sensuous texture, and you are confronted by works which are immediately convincing.

These recent painting are not tableaux to be minutely examined over and over again. In his endeavor to share with us that moment of mystery and revelation so central to all religious and creative experiences, Zajac has created canvases which once seen leave an indelible impression. Made, as it were, in “one swoop,” these paintings reflect a deep need for spontaneous expression not fulfilled by the conditions of sculpture. The artist’s need to employ both plastic languages is based on this realization.

Zajac offers us a moving pageant of celebration. In the face of destruction it is hope, not hopelessness he projects. And it is in this hopefulness that he becomes a spokesman for many of his contemporaries who have faith even in time of ultimate danger while others can offer us only anger and despair.

Henry Seldis